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Italy Calls Shooting an Accident

Official Urges U.S. Probe of Iraq Slaying

By Alan Cooperman and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page A18

ROME, March 8 -- Italy's foreign minister said Tuesday that the killing of an Italian intelligence agent and wounding of an Italian journalist by U.S. troops in Iraq was an accident, but he demanded that the United States conduct a thorough investigation and punish those at fault.

In a somber speech to Parliament, Gianfranco Fini disputed the U.S. military's version of the events that led to Friday night's shooting near Baghdad International Airport. The car carrying journalist Giuliani Sgrena to the airport -- less than an hour after her release by insurgents who had held her hostage -- was coming to a halt when it was riddled by gunfire at a U.S. checkpoint, Fini said. He also said the slain intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, had made a series of phone calls in an effort to alert Italian and U.S. authorities.

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In Washington, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq, said an investigation of the shooting had been ordered. But Casey said he had been unaware Friday that Italian officials had entered Iraq to rescue Sgrena and said he had heard nothing since to indicate the Italians had informed U.S. forces of the route her car would take.

Casey told reporters at the Pentagon that a member of his staff, Brig. Gen. Peter Vangjel, would head the investigation. He said that "modalities" of the probe were still being discussed with the Italians but that he expected it to be conducted jointly.

Casey, in Washington this week for consultations, said that before he left Baghdad on Friday he had made "preliminary inquiries" into what went wrong. He declined to provide his own account, citing the probe.

The shooting has caused outrage in Italy, where 20,000 people turned out for Calipari's funeral Monday. Sgrena, a reporter for the Communist daily newspaper Il Manifesto, has fueled anti-American sentiment by suggesting that U.S. forces may have targeted the car because the United States opposes negotiating with hostage-takers.

Fini said there were no grounds to believe the shooting was deliberate, and he dismissed calls by opposition parties for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government to withdraw the 2,700 Italian troops serving in the U.S.-led force in Iraq.

But he said the government's conclusion that the shooting was an accident resulting from a series of "fatal coincidences" did not mean it should drop the matter. "This does not prevent us -- in fact, it obliges us -- to demand clarification, to ask that light be shed on points that are still murky, to identify who is responsible . . . and to obtain the punishment of the guilty," Fini said.

In an initial statement after the shooting last week, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad said the Italians' car was "traveling at high speeds" and refused to halt at a checkpoint despite attempts by U.S. soldiers to warn the driver to stop "by hand and arm signals, flashing white lights, and firing warning shots in front of the car."

A senior military officer in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that soldiers at the checkpoint reported that Sgrena's car was traveling about 60 mph and had been signaled with a spotlight to stop when it was about 125 yards from the checkpoint.

Fini's detailed description of the incident -- based on testimony by the driver, an unidentified Italian intelligence agent -- contained no mention of warning shots or hand signals. Fini said the car was traveling at no more than 25 mph on a wet road as the driver steered around cement blocks. Fini said the driver was already braking when the car was hit by a burst of automatic gunfire lasting 10 to 15 seconds.

U.S. soldiers ordered the driver to his knees outside the car, then repeatedly apologized once they realized who was in the car, Fini said.

Casey, asked about statements by Italian officials that the U.S. military had been informed of Sgrena's release and the plan to transport her to the airport, said he knew of nothing confirming that such communication took place. "I personally do not have any indication of that, even on a preliminary basis," he said.

The incident has focused attention on U.S. checkpoint procedures, a contentious topic among some Iraqis who regard U.S. forces as sometimes too quick on the trigger. A number of civilians have been killed after failing to stop or committing some other error on approaching checkpoints.

Casey said he had asked a subordinate to review all checkpoint incidents in the past six months to determine what lessons could be drawn. He said a separate checkpoint incident Friday, which resulted in the death of a Bulgarian soldier, had deepened his concern about procedures. "Obviously, the timing gave me cause for discomfort," Casey said. "It was troublesome."

[Early Wednesday in Baghdad, a suicide bomber driving a garbage truck detonated explosives near a hotel used by Iraqi police and their foreign instructors, killing at least one person and wounding at least six, the Reuters news agency reported, citing police.]

Graham reported from Washington. Special correspondent Sarah Delaney in Rome contributed to this report.

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